Terry Plunkett Poetry Festival
Augusta, Maine 2010
Below are some thoughts on the Festival, which I attended both days (Friday April 16 and Saturday April 17). It was held, as usual, at UMA in Jewett Hall and the Student Center.
I want to start with the strengths. There was some excellent poetry, including work by Maine’s Poet Laureate Betsy Sholl. Another star was Robin Merrill. These poets, and a few others, delved deep with superb craft and unique skill, never sounding pedantic, sentimental, or self-indulgent.
Another plus was the large number of attendees, especially Friday night, and the warmth and excitement they generated. The Festival was very well organized and the ambience was enjoyable. There was complimentary food that was quite toothsome. Not only that, Jewett Hall provided a backdrop of culture and art, enhancing the experience.
Finally, young and student poets were encouraged and promoted with awards and opportunities to read. The audience and the organizers all received them most warmly and enthusiastically. I believe the chief organizer was Ellen Taylor, who was clearly exceptional.
Now I want to mention some mixed elements.
The panel on Poetry & Economics, the centerpiece of Saturday’s schedule, had four very knowledgeable people, a group of experienced editors, publishers and/or book sellers. They provided great information. However, the overall effect was depressing and demoralizing.
All four speakers came across as ambivalent mandarins. On one hand, they praised poetry as a non-conformist expression of highest truth and angst; and yet they also emphasized that millions of poems are published every year, and that there is no way to wade through them. Also, many poets are bad poets without knowing it, and have unrealistic expectations.
Not only that, US culture is not highly rewarding of poets. At one point the audience was chagrined when it was pointed out we hadn’t bought (show of hands) the latest Pulitzer-winning collection.
At the nadir, one panelist claimed he was “jaded” and said to another panelist that he didn’t know how he or anyone could continue as a seller. This panelist also said that his ideal poet had a full-time job in the 'real' world, and fit poetry in around the cracks in a busy lifestyle.
It was depreciatory and even terrible. Imagine speaking at a major poetry event and bashing people who dedicate themselves to poetry.
Instead of inspiring us bards, the panel effectively slighted our importance. Their demeanor was one of exasperation and acquiescence, despite a flaccidly delivered idealism.
I want to mention one panelist in specific, and that is Gary Lawless. This fellow, to me, was the best of the four at speaking with passion, heart, and truth. He is obviously brilliant, and ought to be teaching poetry and the history of poetics.
He let me down at only one place, but it was crucial. When asked if the US was acting immorally in marginalizing poets, he said no, and gave a response that appealed to cultural relativism.
What he should have said, in my opinion, is: yes, the US has acted immorally in marginalizing poets. For instance, our shiny superficial culture of materialism is unhealthy and unwise, and is antithetical to the depth and profound soul-searching good poetry inspires.
The best thing about the panel was that it validated the essential importance of a certain kind of poetry: poetry that challenges the status quo with naked emotion and raw imagery aligned (though not didactically) with the highest virtues.
The next aspect of the Festival about which I was mixed: humor. There were a large number of funny poems. Chuckle-makers seemed, in fact, to be a central theme.
This might be due to a penchant for Henny-Youngman-style jokes by local legend Terry Plunkett, for whom the Festival is named.
Some of the humorous poems were exquisitely wrought and magnificently performed. Chris Fahy, in particular, showed mastery of this difficult art, as did Robin Merrill (yes, I’m mentioning her again).
The best laugh-sparkers tended, ironically, to have a ‘deep’ side as well as that je-nais-sais-quoi of superb comedy.
On the down side, there was a hefty serving of phrases that were saccharine and silly, lacking the special quality that engages the listener.
Perhaps the problem started Friday night when the featured administrative speaker, launching the Festival, started off with a good five minutes of Henny-Youngman-style jokes to honor the habits of Dr. Plunkett.
This ridiculous antic belied the deeper purpose of poetry (as expressed, say, by the panel of four mavens) and set the wrong tone for a serious artistic event, in my humble opinion.
Poetry is Neruda, Lowell, Plath, Sexton and the wit of Collins. Not cutesy blurbs that would be at home on Sesame Street.
This brings me to the worst part about the conference: a great deal of vapid unpolished work.
Again, I have to mention the administrator who launched the Festival with his speech. He peppered the audience with many minutes of one-liners; presented a portraiture to a retiring friend of his, also an administrator (many minutes more); and ended with a long spiel about his own personal philosophy of life: people are all selfish and poets are simply selfish people who get more out of writing poems than making money.
It was, I am sorry to say, a misuse of critical time, which painted poetry as a personalized dalliance and poets as quotidian narcissists. I was extremely disappointed.
As a professional philosopher, let me say this: it makes no sense to say that everyone is selfish (the word loses meaning if you do). Clearly some people are more respectful of feelings than others, allowing a straightforward definition of selfish vs. unselfish. The administrator, de facto, was very disrespectful of poets and quite presumptuous in his faux erudition concerning egoism (the theory that people should be, or are, selfish).
Can you tell I am tired of conceited bureaucrats?
Anyway, there was a good deal of tedious poetry. Hours of it. It was hard to sit and listen as poet after poet dowsed us with a turgid explanation of their ethos wrapped in clumsy polysyllabic phrase.
One invited guest spent fifteen minutes steeped in the equivalent of vituperation, slamming her home town on all fronts: the people, the attitudes, the cleanliness, the politics, the backwardness--and so on. As if to mitigate these long minutes of sesquipedalian attack, she made sure to use a famous line from Milton, explaining that heaven could be hell or in her case, hell could be heaven.
Another debacle occurred when a doyen of a local poetry community said that 16-year-olds have not yet earned the right to feel sorry for themselves. This callous generalization extinguished any inclination I had to appreciate his darkly existential (and self-absorbed) poems.
I suppose the general mediocrity of the prose (it was mostly all prose work, kin to the short story) is acceptable, given the purpose of the Festival to build community and give voice to a wide variety of folks. However, those of us seeking excellence were left wanting much more. By the end, I felt like starving beggar who had been handed a few orts, then cudgelled repeatedly about the head.
All in all, the Festival provided a few jewels and plenty of opportunities to network (for instance, Henry Braun was there, a true legend of national importance). It also encouraged young poets and warmly opened its arms to wordsmiths of all backgrounds across the state.
In the end, I would ask, mainly, for two improvements: (1) Allow a seasoned passionate poet, not an administrator, to give the first speech, (2) Invite (pay for) a few more exceptional poets, while reducing the time allotted to the precious repeat performers and other invited guests.
Carol Kontos (Facilitator)
George Van De Venter